by Fr. Blake
This sermon preached was on the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, 4 February 2018, at St. Mark’s Church in Berkeley, CA. It was the Sunday of our Annual Meeting, when we held a single combined service at 9am, and proceeded directly to the parish hall for a pot-luck lunch and proceedings.
Collect: Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen:
One of the saddest stories I hear as a priest is a story I’ve heard many times. An alcoholic husband or wife checks into rehab, finds AA, and begins recovery. A happy story! But too often, the change creates new challenges which are too different, too difficult to bear, and the couple divorces. Totally apart from moral evaluation, sometimes it seems the system, with its relationships, roles, and expectations, had grown dependent on the sickness, and healing was too great a change to sustain.
Or in other cases during a long illness families will rally around the sick member, but when healing finally comes there is no energy left for living life. I remember one case specifically, first-time parents had a infant son born prematurely, with several medical complications. It was two years before he was strong enough to begin a normal childhood development. The family was thrilled at his recovery, but within a few months there was trouble. The mother finally came to me and said, “You know in some ways it was easier when he was sick, I knew what to do and what was expected of me. But now what? Every small accomplishment my son achieved before was a reminder to me that there was still hope. But now I just find myself annoyed all the time, and unsure what to do next, or even what to hope.” I didn’t know what to tell her, except to affirm the difficult message that healing is sometimes just as hard to manage as sickness.
Today’s Gospel lesson is no stranger to this kind of tension. Simon Peter’s mother in law is sick. We don’t know how long she was sick, but it seems long enough at any rate for Peter to have gone to his work fishing on the Sea of Galilee, met Jesus walking there, started following him, and brought him back to Capernaum. When Jesus heals her she gets up and begins to serve them. It’s the first time in the Gospel that the word we translate as “deacon” is used, and by some renderings that makes Peter’s mother-in-law the first Deacon. Talk about a change in relationship and expectations! And for that matter, she’s his mother-in-law — was Peter still married at the time he was called as a disciple? And what would that have done to his relationship with his wife? Or, as one church tradition holds, was Peter a widower taking care of his late wife’s mother? Either way, the healing that Jesus brings is a life-altering kind of healing. Nothing will ever be the same again, either for Peter or for his mother in law.
A lot of times I think we look for healing as a kind of answer to our problems, and certainly it resolves whatever presenting issue of illness or suffering we might be facing. But what then? Life was not the same for Peter or for his mother-in-law; and when you and I try to get back to life as usual, so often it fails so spectacularly that we find our relationships breaking down, to a place where they might not recover.
So what then? Is “life as usual” just a myth? Is healing not worth having after all? Our passage from Isaiah might be one of the most glorious in all of Scripture: “Those who wait for the Lord will rise up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” But is it just an illusion? I don’t think so.
Healing is certainly one of the things the Gospel promises, certainly one of the chief marks of Jesus’ ministry on earth and one of the chief marks of his Church’s mission. But the simple truth is that Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. One of my favorite examples is Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on the road to Jericho calling to the Son of David. Jesus restores his sight, and immediately Bartimaeus follows him on the road: the road that will lead directly to Jerusalem, Good Friday, and the tomb. No, Christian healing doesn’t fix anything. If anything it only clarifies our powers of sight, to enable us to face death more squarely; more squarely and with greater hope.
Forgiveness presents the same problem: it cuts off the memory of sin and wrong, dissolving it in the grace of God. As a priest it has been my privilege to hear many first confessions, as well as make my own, and every time the experience is similar: the penitent often feels awash in a sense of immediate and transcendent liberation, the weight gone which had become so familiar they’d forgotten it was something they were carrying. And yet, even in such a powerful moment as that, the problem remains: what now? The psalmist reflects, “Our sins are stronger than we are” – but what happens when they’re gone? What do we do with our newfound freedom? What do we do with what do we fill our time, and our memories?
Healing and forgiveness both present great blank walls to the Christian imagination. What came before is over. Now what? There can be no return to business as usual. Forgiveness and healing both reveal business as usual for what it is: a vast series of compromises and concessions, overfunctioning and underfunctioning, to compensate for the pain, difficulty, and disappointment which characterize so much of our life in this world. There can be no peace with anything that diminishes life, no return to patterns of corruption and decay.
So what do we do with that blank wall? What do we do with the vast unknown stretching out beyond the joy of healing, beyond the freedom of forgiveness? Simply put, that is where Christian life begins, the door from which the Kingdom of God opens onto unknown horizons. We make our first faltering steps through that door and find the blank emptiness resolving, into all the manifold splendors of God.
We cannot tell what each of us shall be on the other side, just as in Scripture we hear no more of Simon Peter’s mother in law, or indeed of almost anyone whom Jesus heals. But we know that our steps beyond will lead us finally to the truth of who we are, and to a fullness of life which nothing can diminish; an innocence, a naivety, which is not ignorance but a new delight in everything that is good, no matter how drab or shabby “Business as usual” becomes.
The challenge, of course, is to make these faltering steps into the unknown of healing and forgiveness even now, today, while we are still afflicted with everything that grieves us. This is part of why worship is so important: here in church, by the Holy Spirit, we are put in touch, literally in touch, with the food and furniture of heaven, even with the body and blood of Jesus.
The disorientation is strong, highlighted in church by the unfamiliar in architecture, language, music, and even occasionally incense; highlighted in life by the unfamiliar which healing and forgiveness reveal in our loved ones, the unplumbed depths of the mystery of human persons. And yet enter the tension we must, if Christian healing and forgiveness are to mean for us what they can, if we are to move through the disorientation towards a new sight: not just to face death, but to enter into life, and walk along its paths into the further undiscovered horizons of the all-abiding love of God.
In the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Amen.